Finding the Right Teacher
Updated: Mar 1, 2020
When I was fifteen, my mum and dad kindly let me have piano lessons. We hired a teacher who we'll call Myrtle! She was nice. She was flexible. She was a terrible teacher.
My parents aren’t musicians, so they weren't the most clued up on finding a good teacher, and I was certainly clueless at fifteen! Alas we found Myrtle who fit the bill, largely because she was cheap. Unfortunately, Myrtle wasn’t a trained musician, and teaching piano was a side venture next to a career she had in the sciences – and in hindsight, it’s obvious it was just a supplementary income to her.
I would see Myrtle once a week for a couple of years and we worked towards my grade three ABRSM music exam. I can vividly remember that exam – I was a wreck, and completely underprepared. Why? Myrtle never taught me how to practice. She never instilled the importance of scales or helped me discover ways to love playing my scales. She never incorporated sight reading into my lessons, and she certainly didn’t help develop my aural awareness and skills – all of these are components of an ABRSM exam. The lessons were unstructured, lacked discipline, and were frankly a bit waffle-y. Myrtle had an appreciation for music, but was luke-warm to teaching. Back then, she was £15 an hour.
When I joined the army, I had lessons with Patrick Harrild who was the then principal tubist of the London Symphony Orchestra. Lessons with him were structured, intelligent, thought provoking. Scales were cemented in by doing a study each week in the key of a scale that was being worked on. Aural awareness was developed through singing. Theory of music was taught by examining the pieces I was playing. Patrick loved music, and he loved to teach. In 2010 I had a one-off lesson with him – he charged £80 for an hour.
Does a professional musician make a good teacher? Do you need to pay a large sum of money for a good teacher? Absolutely not! So I'm about to impart my views on the subject from a position of a musician working professionally, and who has had a varied range of quality teachers.
I think a good teacher has the following qualities:
1) Puts being a good musician above being a good instrumentalist. What do I mean by this? A teacher should teach you how to think, and develop your skills of pitch, rhythm, intonation, aural ability, and general understanding of the musical language. Playing the instrument is technique and muscle memory; but it’s all for nought if you can’t play “in time, in tune, with a good sound”, and that stuff’s all about good musicianship. Be “a good musician who happens to play the <insert instrument here>”.
2) A good teacher has experience. They may not have formal qualifications, and they may not have a full time job in a professional orchestra or the like, but they have enough performance experience, are competent at their instrument, have a strong understanding of music theory, and have enough awareness of the music industry to instruct and guide students – this is crucially important if the student wants to become a professional musician.
3) Honesty is key. We all want to hear that we’re good, and sometimes facing up to the reality of exactly where we are in our development can be tough. A good teacher will be honest with you, while being simultaneously constructive so you can improve. They will tell you in such a way that you feel empowered to overcome the bumps in the road, and motivate you to continue when you feel your progress plateaus. Similarly, a good teacher will tell you when you’re starting to take the ‘Michael’ with your lack of practice and are starting to waste yours, and their time!
4) Generally speaking, everything a teacher teaches you; they should be able to do themselves. They want you to play a four octave C# melodic minor scale? Then they should be able to do it. They want you to play a specific concerto for an audition? Then they too should be able to play it. Failing that, then they must, must, must have the knowledge to be able to do it.
5) A really good teacher will bring their instrument to a lesson to demonstrate musical points and technique. Students need to hear what a mature sound sounds like on their instrument, what good intonation sounds like, and what musical expression can sound like.
6) Your teacher should be passionate about music and their instrument. When you have a passionate teacher, you will find that you too gain a passion for music and your instrument. It’s as if you gain passion through osmosis.
7) The teacher makes the lesson fun!
Teachers come in all varieties, and there is no one "perfect" teacher out there. Shop around and find one that you ‘click’ with and have most of the above qualities. Instinct will often let you know when you’ve found one that’s right for you, and who can help you achieve what you want to achieve on your instrument. Have you had any good teachers that spring to mind? If so, what made them good? Please leave your thoughts and comments! Much love, Callum